View from the Cheap Seats

On the Immortal Gary Busey (& Other Musings)...

May 23, 2013 - 5:06 pm   |   by
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My friends and I used to play drinking games based on lines from the immortal Blazing Saddles and, usually, as we were about to be thrown out of one of the lesser establishments, my pal John Beebe, in his cups after about 12 screwdrivers, would stop all proceedings and yell, “I’ll now be reading from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and… Duck!”

I mention this now, because of a specific reaction to a long held statement that I’ll make anywhere, anytime.

I believe that one Gary Busey, admittedly a friend of mine, is a wonderful raconteur, an Oscar nominated actor of great skill… and an all around good guy.


While some people seem to think that Gary was… well, hatched… he was in fact born in Texas and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he became part of a legendary late night local television show there called The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting, with another terrific Oklahoma performer who made it to the big time, Gailard Startain.

Here’s a great, pre-stardom, I’ll-do-anything-to-be-in-show-business story about Gary…

There was once an act that would play the rodeo circuit called “Rhesus McKack,” which was a tiny monkey who would wear a little cowboy suit and then was tied to the back of a bucking broncho’s tail.  If it sounds like animal cruelty, it probably was, however the real story here is Gary acting out his involvement in the act, which was to get the suit off of that monkey after he had ridden around the rodeo arena.  Watching Gary’s replay of this is one of the two or three funniest things I’ve ever seen a human perform.  I think about it now and start to laugh.

From there, Gary hit Hollywood and immediately fell in love with the southern California lifestyle.  Actually, he arrived in the movie industry when many legends were still working steadily and he was thrilled to get to know people like Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and Robert Ryan.  He made friends with many terrific stars, both from the present and past, and appeared in some wonderful 70s movies  like Lolly-Madonna XXX, The Last American Hero, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Straight Time and Big Wednesday.  Of course, he was nominated for an Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story.

Here’s my favorite story from Gary’s early acting career…

It seems as though he had been cast in an episode of Baretta with none other than perhaps the greatest character actor of all time – Strother Martin.  As the crew was setting up, Busey, who was to play Martin’s criminal son, sheepishly asked the veteran actor to read lines.  “Let’s do it in my trailer,” Martin said, in a voice that sounded like a mixture of Ann Richards and Paul Lynde.  The two began going over lines from their bound scripts.

Gary: “Hey dad, where are we going to stash the car?”

Strother: “Out behind the barn.”

Busey noticed that as soon as Martin’s line was over he immediately whipped himself around to look at a mirror that had been strategically placed on a far wall.

Gary: “Then what will we do?”

Strother: “We’ll set it on fire!”

Again, Martin whipped around to his left and looked in the mirror off to the side.

After several minutes of this, Gary finally asked why the famed character actor was making such an effort to see his reflection, to which Strother Martin replied:

“I always want to see if I actually believe myself when I say lines!”

Another part of the same incident took place later as the two continued on.

Gary: “We’ll hide behind the bush like a shomalon…”

Strother: “Shomalon?  The word is chameleon.  You moron.”

Some of you might remember that Gary played the legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant in a picture called The Bear, which was shuffled into theaters long enough for me to see it and hasn’t been in any public realm since.  Gary says it’s due to foreign investment, but who knows?  Either way, as is Busey’s standard S.O.P., he got to know the character he was playing very well.  Here’s a story Bear Bryant himself told to Gary…

One time there was an annual post season meeting of SEC coaches and Bryant, being the dean of said bunch, showed up hours late.  As he threw his briefcase on the table, the lock popped and a bottle of Old Grandad rolled out of the case and landed on the floor, shattering and soaking the carpet with double rectified busthead.  (Always wanted to say that – it’s from True Grit.)

“Damn it, those were my notes!” Bryant said.

Here’s one more Busey story, which takes place during the filming of the now classic cult film Carny, produced by musician Robbie Robertson…

While it was a thrill for both actor and producer that they had been fortunate enough to cast legendary character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. in a pivotal role, Cook, who was getting on in years, had somewhat of a reputation as a black-out drunk, who would hold up shooting for weeks at a time when he was binge drinking.  At first there were absolutely no problems, however, after shooting for about a month, Cook failed to show up to the set for two days.  Aside from being concerned for the great actor’s well being, Robertson was especially miffed that he had lost two days of shooting and was concerned that, now that a precedent had been set, Cook would continue this particular behavior.

“I’ll show him who’s boss,” Busey said, as he stomped over to the diminutive actor’s director’s chair.

“Elisha, we all love you here and love what you’re doing in this movie, but if you miss one more day because your drunk, I’m coming to your room and break that bottle over your head and lead you out by your shoes and embarrass you in front of all the cast and crew, and then I’m going to pick up the phone and call your wife to come up here and get you.”

Cook, who made a career out of looking scared, made his most frightened face ever and, with sheer terror in his voice, said this to Busey:

“Please for the love of God don’t tell my wife!”

Being in physical proximity to Gary Busey is a trip – he’s deaf as a post, smells of reeking, foul cigars, yells just to hear himself talk and will wrestle you to the ground or put you in a bone crunching headlock.  And he’ll just say anything – one of his “Busey-isms” or any other disgusting thought – that crosses his mind. 

I love him.  I’ll tell you more one day.

Bud Elder with Gary Busey


On Another Note…

I have another quick story/trivia question for that I’ll leave on the floor until next time…

I once spent a week with Larry McMurtry, one of America’s greatest writers.  Many of you might know that his novel Lonesome Dove was originally a screenplay, written along with Peter Bogdanovich, immediately after their successful collaboration of The Last Picture Show.

I had always heard that the lead parts in Lonesome Dove, had been written for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.  Now, here’s the question I asked McMurtry – which actor was supposed to play which character?  The John Wayne of Red River could have played Call, but the John Wayne of True Grit could have played Gus.  The Jimmy Stewart of Winchester ‘73 could have played Call but the Jimmy Stewart of The Cheyenne Social Club could have played Gus.  And Henry Fonda could have easily played any of the three.

So how do you think McMurtry answered?  Chew this one over and I’ll give the answer next week.


New on DVD

Those who have been with me since the beginning know that my favorite cartoon character is Popeye and – as though it was created just for me – Warner Home Video several years ago put out all the original early 30s black and white theatrical shorts in order.  They were, and are, sublime.Warner Archive's new Popeye DVD

Now, Warner Archive has released the color Popeye cartoons made specifically for television in the 60s.  For those of us “Popeye-itis” it’s a must have and, while the cartoons aren’t nearly as elaborate as those originals, seeing Wimpy eat a hamburger off of the needle of a space ship is a special kind of thrill.  Do check them out.

Also from Criterion this month comes two of the greatest westerns ever made – Jubal and the original 3:10 to Yuma – directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford.  3:10 is a special treat with, I have to mention, strong Oklahoma connections – story author Elmore Leonard lived here for a piece and majestic character actor Van Heflin was born in Walters.

Finally, Shout! Factory has released Mel Brooks: Make a Noise – the American Masters special on the legendary comic – with interviews with everybody from Carl Reiner to Nathan Lane to Joan Rivers.  It’s well worth your time.


In Theaters

Three pictures of prime substance, terrific storytelling and strong characterizations have made their way into my local multiplex…

The Company You Keep, is Robert Redford’s first acting/directing output in forever and the movie is so subtle, so deliberate and so… well… political, that one wonders how the old boy still has it in him.  But there he is, running through the upstate New York woods and pushing that fabulous blond hair off of his steely-eyed, 76 year old face.  It’s just wonderful to see him back on the big screen, along with a righteous cast that includes Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins and Brendan Gleeson. 

There’s also room in movie heaven for A Place Beyond the Pines, a blacker than black modern noir from Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine.  Maybe at 140 minutes it’s a tad too long for people who don’t have the patience to let a picture develop, but I thought it a compelling journey into our collective dark souls.

However, the picture of which we must truly discuss is Mud, a movie that I have recommended to so many of my friends that it’s starting to look as though I’ve got a piece of it.

MudDirected by Jeff Nichols, who made perhaps the most underrated picture of last year, Take Shelter, Mud is an absolutely wonderful (gasp!) family movie that tells its story without any cheap dramatics or clichéd characters.  People will talk about this picture as though it’s a breakthrough for Matthew McConaughey, and he’s just south of fabulous, but the true heart of  Mud  are its two young leads, Tye Sheridan (who was equally as effective in Tree of Life) and Jacob Loflad who play best friends in a small Arkansas town confronted with life altering adventure.

Actually, Mud reminds me of the work of Horton Foote, as in specifically Tender Mercies – the picture isn’t necessarily period specific (there are no cell phones here at all) and, by the end, we’re breathless from the ride on which we have been taken.

While again any cast would have succeeded in Mud, I must mention that it is thrilling to see the great Joe Don Baker back in the bad guy saddle and also a nice part for a young Oklahoma actor named Paul Sparks, easily recognized after his three seasons of Boardwalk Empire.

Speaking of other films, so much has been written about Iron Man 3 that it’s almost redundant to mention it at all.  It’s dreary, confusing and maddening, helped only by a nice Ben Kingsley turn and a song from my friend Dwight Yoakam in a bar scene.  There’s much better news to report however on Star Trek Into Darkness which is, I think, to this series reboot what The Wrath of Khan was to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  It’s just a fantastic action adventure and I hope there are many more to come.


A couple of things in closing…

I'm very proud of our very own Oklahoma film festival – deadCENTER – which will be held June 5-9 here in Oklahoma City.  (You can visit the official website here.)  We have a wonderfully active film community here in Oklahoma and I’m thrilled to have played a part in its creation.  deadCENTER has been named by MovieMaker magazine as one of the top 20 “Coolest” festivals in the world and I certainly agree.deadCENTER Film Festival

Also, I’m proofing this piece on May 20, the same day of the devastating tornado that hit on the south side of our town.  Sadly, Oklahoma is getting used to this level of catastrophe, but it sure doesn’t help right now.  Thanks to all those of you who have checked in with me.

Until next time,

- Bud Elder



(Busey cover photo by Douglas Gorenstein)


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